Duke Health

Cancer and sexual function seem to be connected, states a new study by Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI). The study states that this correlation is irrespective of the type of cancer and the duration of the treatment received by the patient. While most studies focus on patients suffering from cancer in sex-related organs such as breast, prostate or gynecological cancer, the current study seems to be focusing on patients with all types of cancers

The team found that sexual problems appeared to persist with the patient even when they were through with the treatment. However, the study also discovered that changes in sexual function were not perpetually related to the decline in sexual satisfaction.

Kathryn Flynn, PhD, assistant professor at the DCRI and the first author of the study said that, “We discovered that having cancer — any kind of cancer — can alter a patient’s sex life.”

She also added that the distinction should be clearly understood by the scientists who are trying to work out better ways of measuring the quality of life among cancer patients. Flynn comments on the current study by stating that it is supposedly one of the most comprehensive in the field. It involves information congregated from 16 focus groups of 109 men and women suffering from different types of cancer. These participants, all in different stages of their treatment, divulged private details to these scientists.

“There are multiple questionnaires that have been used to measure sexual function and intimacy, but none appears to cover the rich depth and breadth that patients with cancer experience,” says Flynn. “We hope these results from our work with these focus groups will be useful in designing something better.”

As part of the NIH network, PROMIS- Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System- a panel of oncologists, sex experts, mental health professionals, and outcomes scientists interacted directly with patients to better their understanding of the nature, scope, and importance of sexual functioning in the daily lives of the patients.

Flynn remarked that, “We found that the most commonly discussed cancer treatment-related impediments to sex were fatigue and weight gain. For women, hair loss was another impediment. Other barriers were specific to cancer type: Lung cancer patients, for example, reported that shortness of breath was a problem. Incontinence was an issue for patients with prostate cancers, and patients who had colon cancer said ostomy bags got in the way of sexual activity.”

The scientists noticed a difference of opinion between men and women on sexual matters. The study indicated that for women, feeling sexually attractive was more important than the frequency of sexual activity. On the contrary, for men the frequency was what mattered the most.

However, both men and women reported that the loss of sexual desire did pose a problem. While certain patients in the post-treatment group reported that the sexual desire had returned, others did not report of any such feelings. Flynn says that one of the most interesting findings came from the patients’ revelations about complex relationships between sexual functions and the intimacy and satisfaction related to their sex life.

“There is no doubt that sexual function and intimacy are important aspects of quality of life for people with cancer and their partners. The next step will be to use the information we gleaned from our patients to create new survey questions about sexual function that better represent the experiences that cancer patients have,” quotes Flynn.

These experiences can be well classified into four categories. The first category speaks of the decline in intimacy when sexual activities deteriorated. Men and women both reported feelings of isolation and at times pushing their partners away when they could not perform sexually. The second categorization was that intimacy could substitute sexual activity. Some participants found that emotional intimacy was a close substitute for sexual activity and that they were happy with the closeness it brought.

The third category said that intimacy itself became a sexual activity. Very few participants said that intimacy in terms of holding hands, etc was what accounted for their sex life. The fourth categorization revealed that increased intimacy could lead to improvement in sexual activity. A wide number of cancer patients allowed changes in the sexual activity so as to enable them with opportunities of discovering additional means gaining sexual pleasures.

This study appeared in the journal Psycho-Oncology.